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Palestinians displaced by Israel's air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip sit next to the border fence with Egypt, in Rafah, on Jan. 24.Hatem Ali/The Associated Press

Palestinians who escaped the Gaza Strip no longer qualify for a special program to reunite with extended family members in Canada if they didn’t finish applying before they left, the federal government has confirmed.

The government launched a special visa program in January that would offer temporary refuge to as many as 1,000 people in Gaza with extended family in Canada.

But Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada confirmed that people who escaped to Egypt before reaching the second stage of the application process aren’t eligible.

Instead, the department says those people can apply to come to Canada through other immigration programs.

The process to apply for temporary refuge involves several steps, starting with a statutory declaration from a Canadian family member and a web form with details about their situation.

After that, some applicants receive a unique code on a first-come, first-served basis. Only then can they begin the official application process and move on to the second stage of the paperwork.

People who escaped before they received a code will no longer be able to apply.

“Applicants must be in Gaza when they apply for a temporary resident visa. People who receive a unique code and submitted a temporary resident visa application that has been accepted into processing will continue to have their application processed once they exit Gaza,” the Immigration Department said in a statement.

“Those who have been able to exit and are in Egypt who do not have a pending application under the special measures may apply through any of our existing immigration programs.”

Several desperate Palestinian-Canadian families have expressed frustration over the policy, given Canada’s failed efforts to convince Israel and Egypt to let applicants cross the tightly controlled border.

“We’re keeping people in this hellish limbo,” Toronto-based immigration lawyer Debbie Rachlis said in a recent interview.

“And people here remain in this hellish limbo where they’ve been waiting for their families and (they are) still stuck. The helplessness people are experiencing is so extreme.”

Rachlis has 50 clients who have made it to Egypt, and some are now paying her to file for separate temporary resident visas, even though she assumes they will be refused because the applicant typically has to prove they will return home when the visa expires.

“My experience doing these in other circumstances – I did one around Afghanistan – was that they were initially refused and I had to litigate,” she said.

“Then they get resubmitted, and then sometimes they get refused again. So if this is going to be a months-long process where people are going to have to litigate then be honest with people.”

The government has tried – unsuccessfully, so far – to convince Israel and Egypt to allow more than 300 Palestinians trapped in Gaza to escape over their shared border.

Some families, after losing faith in Canada’s official channels, paid thousands of dollars to private companies that helped their loved ones get to Egypt. Many of them now find themselves trapped.

So far, the government has issued only 14 visas to people who got out of Gaza without Canada’s aid and finished the screening process in Cairo.

The minister and department officials were grilled about the 1,000-visa cap at a committee hearing Wednesday, where more than 20 Palestinian Canadians with family in Gaza gathered to share their plight with the minister.

“We implore them to expedite visa issuance for our families stranded in Egypt, removing the arbitrary cap of 1,000 visas,” Wesam Nofal said on behalf of the group after the meeting.

“Time is of (the) essence. Every moment wasted prolongs the agony of our families, some of whom have already endured heartbreaking losses while waiting for a glimmer of hope, promised months ago.”

The department plans to send out more individual codes so more people can apply for the visa, Miller said, but he did not share specific numbers.

“By putting a cap in place, the government has delayed the processing of the applications,” NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan told the committee.

The reason for the cap is that Canada wants to see how many people it can help facilitate to leave Gaza, said the Immigration Department’s deputy minister Harpreet Kochhar.

“We have 986 complete applications but we have been unable to secure the people to come out, even though we’re working every single day with Israel and Egypt,” Kochhar testified.

Miller said the prime minister and foreign affairs minister have also been working to try to negotiate a path through the border for people who applied through the program to come to Canada.

Kwan said the least Canada can do is allow people to get through the Canadian bureaucracy by removing the cap on the number of visas it plans to issue.

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